Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Two Worlds: Waiters Who Starve, And Those Who Don't

June 19th, 2012 | Jonathan Tasini

jonathan-tasiniTwo sides of the planet. Two different systems. Two different realities for workers–and, therein, lies the lesson: economies are about power, and values.

Over in the U.S., if you are a waiter in the food industry, you are screwed, as Mark Bittman outlined in his column a few days ago, on the backs of a searing indictment called “The Hands That Feed Us”. Bittman writes:

Help wanted: Salary: $19,000 (some may be withheld or stolen). No health insurance, paid sick days or paid vacation. Opportunity for advancement: nearly nil.

This job, or something much like it, is held by nearly 20 million people, 10 million of whom work in restaurants. They are the workers employed in producing, processing and delivering our food, who have been portrayed in vivid and often dispiriting detail in a new report called The Hands That Feed Us. Written by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, the report surveyed nearly 700 workers employed in five major sectors: production, processing, distribution, retail and service.

The upshot: Our food comes at great expense to the workers who provide it. “The biggest workforce in America can’t put food on the table except when they go to work,” says Saru Jayaraman, Co-Founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-U).[emphasis added]

All this comes because of the pathetic “special minimum wage”–$2.13 an hour–paid to restaurant workers:

Take that $2.13 figure, the federal minimum wage for tipped workers. Legally, tips should cover the difference between that and the federal minimum wage, now a whopping $7.25. If they don’t, employers are obligated to make up the difference. But that doesn’t always happen, leaving millions of servers — 70 percent of whom are women — taking home far less than the minimum wage.

Which brings us to the happily almost-forgotten Herman Cain. What’s called the “tipped minimum wage” — that $2.13 — once increased in proportion to the regular minimum wage. But in 1996, the year Cain took over as head of the National Restaurant Association (NRA), he struck a deal with President Bill Clinton and his fellow Democrats. In exchange for an increase in the regular minimum wage, the tipped minimum wage was de-coupled. The result: despite regular increases in the regular minimum wage, the tipped minimum wage hasn’t changed since 1991.

Other disheartening facts: Around one in eight jobs in the food industry provides a wage greater than 150 percent of the regional poverty level. More than three-quarters of the workers surveyed don’t receive health insurance from their employers. (Fifty-eight percent don’t have it at all; national health care, anyone?) More than half have worked while sick or suffered injuries or health problems on the job, and more than a third reported some form of wage theft in the previous week. Not year: week.

And, as a reminder, even the $7.25-an-hour minimum wage, as

I’ve pointed out for a number of years

, is far below what it should be. It should be at least $20-an-hour, if you take into account how much productivity has risen over the past 30 years.

But, now, let’s take a trip half a planet away–to Australia where I have the pleasure of hanging my hat for a bit. The national minimum wage will go up to about $16-an-hour on July 1st. Waiters make that–and usually as much as $20-an-hour. Oh, and don’t forget they also are covered by the national health care plan (called “Medicare” here).

And, so, my Aussie friends are usually mildly annoyed when I add a tip to everything I eat–including coffee. It’s not that Aussies don’t tip–they do. But, it’s seen as an extra, a little more for particularly good service or when it seems appropriate. But, no one tipping a waiter here thinks that, in doing so, they are making a difference between a waiter making the rent or going broke. It’s not that waiters are rich. It is simply that they can do their job and earn a fair wage.

That’s the difference: exploitation U.S.-style versus a fair wage Aussie-style.

That is about basic values, morality and, ultimately, power.

This post originally appeared in Working Life on June 18, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981). He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.

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One Response to “Two Worlds: Waiters Who Starve, And Those Who Don't”

  1. Charles J Read Says:

    I went to the original posting on “Working Life” you cannot sign up to leave comments. Since the article is full of lies and distortions I would not want it to be commented on either.

    I am in the payroll buisness. I see what comes across from resturants. I also know that one of the biggest problems that the IRS has is getting tipped employees to report what they actually make.

    I know 40 years ago (way past the statue) I did not report all my tips and neither did anyone else. Nor was I ever taxed on employer provided meals, whether they intended to supply them or not.

    My wife was a waitstaff also then trainer then asst manager then manager at one of the largest resturant chains in the country because she was willing to work. She could have gone higher but would have had to travel and did not want to or at that point need to.

    The facts of the article in regards to resturants have little or no basis in reality.

    Charles

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